Some of the challenge in critiquing this Seattle Mariners roster has been that expectations were so low. A club expected to contend for nothing more than a top-10 pick instead is still grasping at the embers of a Wild Card flame in mid-September. It’s pleasing in an intellectual sense, but when viewing Seattle as a contender in contrast to the teams they’re jockeying with, the limitations that have undone the M’s all season are clear. Their lineup simply does not match up with that of a contender, and nowhere does it glare through more obviously than in the top and heart of their order.
Seattle’s No. 1 through No. 5 spots in the lineup have been relatively steady in 2021, at least in comparison to the final four. Though there have been mild shufflings, the core orientation settled on has been J.P. Crawford, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, Ty France, and, a medley of players in the No. 5 hole, though since his acquisition, a majority of Abraham Toro.
These are Seattle’s five best healthy hitters at present (alas, Kyle Lewis), with situational deference to Luis Torrens and Tom Murphy, as well as at least a question mark on whatever a 100% healthy Jake Fraley might look like. They’re all solid, even, with Crawford running a .267/.332/.367 line and a 99 wRC+, Haniger at .255/.321/.477 and a 119 wRC+, Seager at .208/.288/.443 and an even 100 wRC+, France leading the club with a .286/.358/.436 and a 123 wRC+, and Toro at a .287/.363/.415 and 121 wRC+ since joining Seattle. They are, rather unequivocally, the best hitters the Mariners have, and are getting the most plate appearances as a result. While that’s encouraging for the lineup construction of Scott Servais, it’s also the problem.
Here’s a chart of Seattle’s collective production from the Nos. 1 thru 5 positions in the lineup, compared to where they rank against others clubs, sorted by wRC+:
A collective 101 wRC+ from the top five spots in the order means the best Seattle can offer is functionally average. No other competitive teams are below them. Only the ace-laden Brewers are within five points above Seattle, and I’ll touch on them again momentarily. Seattle’s current roster is a starless muddle, dismissive as that may seem to a collection of plenty of solid players. Without impact position players, the type the M’s will need to prioritize this offseason and open up their checkbooks for, Seattle simply does not stack up plausibly against the sturdier contenders in the American League, nor MLB as a whole.
Let’s turn our gaze to the bottom of the order briefly, which has often felt even more cavernous. It is, unsurprisingly, worse! But compared to the rest of the league, Seattle’s 78 wRC+ from their Nos. 6 through 9 hitters (adjusted to remove pitchers, lest NL teams be misleadingly judged) is somewhat less significantly off the average.
They’re not drastically different, particularly when gauging from average, but few clubs have exceptional bottoms of the order. Notably, the contenders who were closest to the M’s in middling tops of the order show better here, as Milwaukee and St. Louis both have gotten solid offense from their depth. Seattle, however, is well off a number of clubs in the top of the order collective, AND lags well behind in the bottom to boot.
For much of the 2021 campaign, timely hitting was Seattle’s ace in the hole. It’s a peculiar and fickle knack for any club, particularly one of the worst offensive clubs in MLB that boasts the worst overall team batting average in baseball at just .223. Their cluster luck has come unbound to some degree in the past month, as has their bullpen’s indomitability, leaving the M’s to go nine (or more) rounds with clubs hoping for the heart of their order to manifest threats.
By putting themselves in positions needing extraordinary fortune to win time and time again, they’ve limited their pathway to victory drastically, and it’s something the M’s need to address externally, not simply hope for improvements from their young players, even as many no doubt will grow. They’ve stopped beating the longest of odds, it’s time to take steps to improve those odds from the start.